EAST LANSING – Jalen Berger paused and quickly chuckled.
One of Michigan State football’s two running back transfers knows his new team’s schedule includes an Oct. 15 game against his old program, Wisconsin.
“Yeah,” Berger said with a grin Monday, “I’ve looked at it.”
A homecoming game for the Spartans, and a chance to exorcise some old ghosts for the one-time Badger.
First, Berger must battle Colorado transfer Jarek Broussard and others for carries during the Spartans’ preseason camp going into the Sept. 2 opener against Western Michigan.
That competition continues Friday in MSU’s second scrimmage of preseason camp. Berger turned coaches’ heads in Saturday’s first one by averaging around 5 yards per carry, according to coach Mel Tucker.
“The scrimmages are for like people trying to earn the reps,” Berger said. “So I feel like it's a big scrimmage.”
Though Berger and Broussard are the new kids on campus, they share a reason and purpose for coming to MSU. Specifically, their connections to the staff.
DRESS REHEARSAL: What Mel Tucker saw during Spartans' closed scrimmage
Start with Berger, a redshirt sophomore who committed to Tucker’s program in late November after seeing the job Kenneth Walker III did following his transfer before the 2021 season from Wake Forest. Like Walker, the 6-foot-1, 205-pound Berger enrolled in January to get a jumpstart on learning the playbook and his new teammates.
To outsiders, the cross-Big Ten transfer appeared strange, given that Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst dismissed the running back from his program four games into his second season. However, Berger said Tucker leaned on the advice of Saeed Khalif — MSU football’s general manager and executive director of player personnel and recruiting — who helped recruit the former four-star prospect while on the Badgers’ staff.
Khalif provided a bridge to vetting Berger after Chryst said little about the Oct. 10 decision to dismiss the New Jersey native. “I spoke with Jalen yesterday, and I am going to keep that between me and Jalen,” Chryst told reporters a day later in his only comment.
“Saeed kind of figured out what was going on,” Berger said. “He talked to a couple of people over there on the staff. That's what ended up with me coming here.”
Berger, who has four years of eligibility, had 88 yards on 24 carries with a touchdown and two catches for 17 yards for the Badgers last fall before the dismissal and was able to preserve a redshirt by playing in just three games. In four games as a true freshman in 2020, Berger ran 60 times for 301 yards with two TDs.
He declined to discuss his split from Wisconsin and the relationship with Chryst.
“I never got a chance to really explain what happened. I guess Coach Chryst didn't really say anything much, so everybody just had their own suggestions to what happened,” Berger said. “But it's all in the past now, and I'm a Spartan now. It doesn't really matter what went on.”
It was a different decision for Broussard, entering his fifth season of college football.
“Coming in from a different program, they kind of already got their foundation already laid,” he said Monday. “So you just take it day by day, be a sponge. All the guys on the team, they welcomed me in with open arms, and that made the transition really easy.”
Broussard’s connection goes back to late 2018, when Colorado hired Tucker while the 5-foot-9, 185-pound Dallas native was recovering from a knee injury that cost him his true freshman season.
It did not take long for Broussard to enjoy playing for Tucker in Jay Johnson’s offense as he returned to the field in the spring of 2019. However, he suffered a second ACL tear that forced him to miss another season.
By the time he finally got to play in 2020, Tucker left for MSU. In that pandemic-shortened season, the former three-star recruit broke out under Tucker’s replacement, Karl Dorrell, to average 162.6 per game and rank third in the Football Bowl Subdivision. Broussard had 895 yards on 156 carries with five touchdowns to become first-team All-Pac-12, win the league’s Offensive Player of the Year award and earn an All-America honorable mention.
The Buffaloes went 4-2 that season, their only winning season since 2016, but Broussard on Monday directed the credit to his current coach.
“I hate to say this, but that 2020 season we went 4-2, I mean, that was Tuck's team. It was just coached by a different coach,” Broussard said. “That foundation was already laid.”
Last season, Broussard finished with 661 rushing yards on 142 carries with two touchdowns in starting 10 of his 11 games in 2021, earning All-Pac-12 honorable mention, but he missed the season-finale against eventual league champion Utah due to a non-COVID illness. He entered the transfer portal after the season, committed to MSU in late January, graduated from Colorado in May and arrived in East Lansing later that month to begin preparing for the competition with Berger, Elijah Collins, Jordon Simmons, Harold Joiner III and Davion Primm.
Even with that many players in the backfield, Broussard pointed to how Tucker and Johnson helped him mentally deal with his second knee injury as a reason he picked MSU.
“I went through a big mental phase of things,” Broussard said. “Just having people like Coach Tuck and Jay Johnson in a corner, just continuing to tell you, 'It's all gonna be OK, it's part of the game,' and the comfort that they gave me (helped). When I did hit the transfer portal, all these schools reached out to me. When they reached out, I'm not gonna say it was a no-brainer, but that relationship we built during my time at Colorado did play a huge role.”
Berger said he and Broussard could be considered a “thunder and lightning” duo, a nickname in MSU lore that harkens back to Jehuu Caulcrick and Javon Ringer at the outset of Mark Dantonio’s tenure. However, both newcomers must also deal with two former Dantonio recruits in Collins (2019) and Simmons (2020) who led the Spartans in rushing yards once in their careers.
Add in Joiner, who transferred to MSU last season from Auburn and showed his ability to make plays in the passing game out of the backfield. And Primm emerged as one of the more talked-about players during spring workouts.
They’re all fighting to replace Walker, no small feat. In his one season with the Spartans, he emerged as the nation’s second-leading rusher, became the Walter Camp national player of the year, won the Doak Walker and Big Ten Running Back of the year awards and earned consensus first-team All-America honors.
Whether one of them will emerge to fill those shoes or all of them play some sort of role remains to be seen. But how Tucker and his staff handled Walker definitely enticed both Berger and Broussard to take a chance to try and become the Spartans’ next big thing.
“Seeing a guy come in from a different program ... and seeing him go crazy like that, that's very eye-opening,” Broussard said. “I kind of just want to do the same and help the team win.”
For openers: Broncos
Matchup: Michigan State (11-2 in 2021) vs. Western Michigan (8-5 in 2021)
Kickoff: 7 p.m. Sept. 2; Spartan Stadium, East Lansing.
TV/radio: ESPN, WJR-AM (760).
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan State RB transfers may be new 'thunder and lightning' combo